Do travel agents need to invest thousands in a smartphone app? Really?

TORONTO — In the 45 days prior to booking a trip, Canadians make 161 visits to travel sites, according to the 2016 Traveler’s Path to Purchase study by comScore.

What’s more, Canadian consumers collectively spend 148 billion minutes per month interacting with digital content, and 70% of those people are consuming digital travel content.

As shockingly high as those numbers are, Canada actually lags behind the UK and the U.S. for just about everything related to travel and technology. The growth rate for Canadian consumption of digital travel content is only 18%, compared to 44% in the UK and 41% in the U.S.

And while Canadian travellers “are slowly shifting away from desktop-only usage at 36% in 2016 compared to 46% in 2015”, by and large Canadians spend many more minutes on their desktop computers and laptops than their smartphones and tablets.

Simply put, when it comes to checking out travel sites online – whether it’s a travel review site, hotel and airline sites, an OTA or, ideally, the booking-friendly website of a traditional bricks-and-mortar travel agency – Canadian consumers still prefer using their desktop computers and laptops over iPhones or iPads. Going on the Internet and consuming online travel content via mobile devices – whether it’s on a smartphone or tablet – hasn’t caught on here quite as quickly as in the UK and the U.S. Growth is slow but steady.

Which begs the question: do travel agencies here need to invest thousands of dollars in a mobile-friendly app that will enable clients to book with their bricks-and-mortar travel agency with a touch of their finger on their smartphones and tablets?

Frederic de Pardieu doesn’t think travel agencies need a mobile app for bookings. And he’s in the travel app business. De Pardieu, CEO of Montreal-based mtrip (, says the best strategy for travel agencies is two-fold.

For bookings, an agency should have a “responsive” website, that is, a website where the design works well with various screen sizes and can be adapted for mobile.

The best time for an app, says de Pardieu, is in the post-booking stage.

“Providing a native mobile app after the booking is the best way for agents to increase loyalty and generate revenue by engaging with the clients during the whole trip,” says de Pardieu.

A native app is what most of us think of when it comes to apps. At Apple’s App Store, there’s an estimated two million apps available for download. Just about everything we do with our phones and tablets these days is via those colourful little app icons on our screens.

Having a native mobile app for iOS and Android for the booking stage does not make sense, says de Pardieu. “Some have invested in a native app and the ROI is very weak.”

Not only that, but the cost of a native app built from scratch can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $200,000. A customizable white-label app customizable costs around $10,000 “however some small agencies share the same app for a very low starter cost”, says de Pardieu.

At the post-booking stage, on the other hand, a mobile app makes sense, says de Pardieu. “On the post-booking stage, you continue engaging with the client by providing a mobile app which will be downloaded if you offer an added-value product (not only a list of bookings but helpful features like real-time flight alerts, flight check-in, offline maps and directions, offline travel guides). The agency will continue to own their client and increase loyalty.” A mobile website doesn’t fit the purpose on the post-booking side as it doesn’t work offline – it can’t be used abroad as nobody wants to pay roaming charges – plus features are limited and there’s not the same agency-client connection, he said.

While the retail travel industry, like just about every other industry, is overwhelmed with the ‘Go Mobile or Die’ message and can be forgiven for throwing up its hands in overwhelmed exasperation at all the tech trends hitting the travel domain, competitors with very deep pockets are making strides.

“Large travel brands are now focusing on a holistic approach of their mobile offering, which means engaging with their clients after the booking and during the whole trip,” says de Pardieu.

Google launched Google Trips, he adds, a travel assistant which includes bookings, travel guides, maps “and they will soon let users book flights and accommodation”. Airbnb just launched its new app. “They want to become an OTA,” says de Pardieu.

“This is a real threat for bricks-and-mortar travel agents as these players will draw more traffic from them. Travel agencies should definitively engage with their clients during the whole trip by providing a mobile travel assistant.”

Jean Collette with Club Voyages Dumoulin, has a white-label version of mtrip’s post-booking app. “My mobile product is an app you find in Google Play and Apple’s App store,” says Collette. “It is free but in order to get the access codes you need to purchase a travel product or service from my agency. The app download mechanic works with my back office system. The minute an invoice is created the important information is transferred directly from my back office program to my app program, for example, name of client, email, dates, destination, itinerary, product or service description, etc.”

Collette introduced his agency app this past summer and says he’s waiting for the winter travel season to see just how valuable the app is for his business. “[In terms of] ROI, it is too early; most of our clients will use the app over the winter. The strategy with the app is more for client retention than client acquisition.”

His investment started with a set-up fee of $15,000 and a monthly fee of $1,500 based on 5,000 clients per year.

Collette says his clients can do many things with the app “and the best things is the app works offline at destination. Clients can pre-register their flights, they get a complete travel guide of their destination, they get all the information on the shopping, dining, nightlife, tours and excursions, monetary device converter, the weather, it has a geo-localization navigator, AR (augmented reality) features, they can book, flight, cars, hotels, trips and excursions and city tours.”

He adds “we have a website but we were not present in smartphones. Now we are and I believe it is a strong way to stay connected with our clients.”

One popular post-booking app, from Umapped, was picked up by TPI. This fall TPI announced it had joined forces with the Canadian travel tech start-up to provide TPI clients with an interactive mobile itinerary with real-time messaging and content that extends to the client’s personal and social networks.

Meanwhile TPI’s Internet booking search engine is mobile-friendly and both TPI advisors and clients have access to this tool and can book travel through this tool via their desktop PC or mobile device. TPI plans to add a cruise booking engine to this tool in the near future. “Our goal at TPI is to provide our advisors with the tools they need to focus on the customer,” said TPI VP, Tim Morgan.

Softvoyage’s VP Sales & Marketing, Dan Langevin, says Softvoyage is seeing a huge uptake on its various platforms being accessed via mobile technology. Canada’s slow-growth mobile stats, at least when it comes to travel, could be because “Canadians are still very much using travel agents to book.”

That said, the mobile usage curve is definitely trending up: “more and more shopping is being done using various platforms which includes mobile.”

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